The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (2 page)

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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“Not always in themselves,” he said calmly. “God's hand is at times ferocious.”

“Yes, God's invincible fire may scourge any of us, Mr. Browne.” She seemed near tears. “But I can only tell you, and Mr. Cole, my beliefs. I have seen and felt things no Christian woman should. My husband and many others the magistrates examined. But the proceedings are hidden.”

Browne got up out of his chair and walked about the room. “The Lord too fires upon us, as you say. And there may be danger in assuming malignancy. Moreover, are not malignant persons His agents too, sent to try us, when He but loosens the chains? I wish to discover what is hidden, Goody Higgins, and by such pursuit to aid you. If as you say I discover some black corruption, so be it. But we must divide the day from the night.”

She made no reply. He paced, looking at her from time to time. Noticing now also the shelves displaying her pewter and other ware, catching half-consciously the flicker of light off the brighter pots and kettles, the warming pan, the whitewashed walls between the brown timbers, he thought that despite her torment she managed to keep her house in order, the floors well sanded and scrubbed. In the corner beside the shelves stood her washbench, her broom, some large wooden tubs and
three baskets. In the shadows there seemed to be other implements of housewifery. Only the woman herself appeared disordered.

Was she beginning to trust him finally? Her resistance, her suspicion, seemed to be slackening. They had been wary of him, this woman and her son, from the very moment of his arrival.

He compared her willingness to talk now to an hour ago when he had arrived with Mr. Cole—a selectman and a magistrate, now under the General Court of Massachusetts—at her small gambrel-roofed house by the river. The boy had opened the rough door just wide enough to peer out with both eyes and hold a firebrand toward the faces of the snow-covered intruders. At Mr. Cole's voice, the boy opened the door and they stepped in quickly against the storm. The woman, sitting directly before a voluminous fire, rose, placed some sewing work on the settle, and turned toward them without speaking.

He had not been able to see her clearly by the light of the fire and two knotty slices of burning candlewood held low in the wall, their smoke rising slowly into the chimney. She pulled the bedrug, draped over her shoulders, around her apron and skirts.

But Cole, a large forceful man who dominated a room or a conversation, immediately introduced Browne as “the newcomer we spoke of, who has come to help.”

Then she and Browne nodded at one another and the boy, perhaps fourteen, moved closer to his mother. The brand he held illuminated her face, and Browne noticed that her pale, probably hazel, eyes were vivid, yet her face was that of a woman who had gone without sleep, or had passed a dangerous travail. Her erect body did not conceal her fatigue. As Cole spoke with her of the storm, the state of her cordwood, the town's desire for a minister, Browne watched her. In a better
moment, she might be a striking woman, he thought. She was perhaps thirty-one or two.

“It's all right, Jared,” she had said to the boy as Cole made ready to leave. “You go to sleep now.”

Browne now looked at Elizabeth Higgins again. “It must be very late,” he said. “You need to rest, Goody Higgins.”

“Sleep is a stranger to me.” She began reciting from the Psalm: “‘I am weary with my groaning, all night make I my bed to swim: I water my couch with tears.'”

He took up some further lines to encourage her: “‘Let all mine enemies be ashamed and sore vexed: let them return and be ashamed suddenly!'”

She looked up at him, her face now like one returning from the dullness of sleep.

“I'll stop awhile if that would help,” he said. “I can spend the time until daylight watching in that chair.” He smiled. “You've given me much to think on.”

“You will help me?”

“I will look into these matters. I will do everything I can to discover your husband and put your sufferings to rest. I am disquieted by these events, as is Mr. Cole. Why not sleep now, Goody Higgins, and let me wake?”

She had asked at first, before he had removed his great cloak, if he were to be their minister. But he had explained that he was called not by the Lord but by Mr. Cole, as an assistant in a certain Higgins-Coffin matter.

Then he added: “I am not a dissenter after the good Lincolnshire folk who settled here when the Synod banished Mr. Robinson and others.” She had said nothing, so he continued. “I came over later to see after my father's ventures, which turned to losses.”

“And just how is it Mr. Cole believes you may help, Sir?”

“I believe I may.”

She looked unsatisfied. He continued: “I never took my degree at Cambridge, but went to Lincoln's Inn. Nor did I stay long enough to be called to the bar. Mr. Cole believes, however, that I might be of use here in divers ways, as I had been briefly at Salem. And to you.”

“So you are among us now,” she said. “You will not be asked to leave with such a protector as Mr. Cole.” She stopped as if resting a moment. The glow of the fire fluttered over her face. “He has smoothed your way, Sir, just as he hopes you shall smooth mine.” She looked him over and he quietly bore her scrutiny.

Must she not, he thought, see that he was a man of substance? His manner, after all, was gentle. His plum waistcoat and suit of full leather breeches, his indigo doublet lined with silken cloth and much brightly slashed cutwork must, he assumed, reassure her. He noticed her eyes on his embroidered gloves, which he had removed and placed in his lap. And did not his age speak to her in his favor as well? After all, unlike Mr. Cole he was of her own generation, conceivably her very age.

It was then that he had asked her whether she might tell him of her present troubles.

Now she was getting up and unwrapping the bedrug from around her. She placed it on the settle and looked at Browne.

“You have provisions for this season?” he asked.

“Yes. Some from planting grounds untouched, some in trade.” She glanced upwards toward a single small chamber above. “Some bushels of grain, barley, and rye. Peas and beans as well. And some Indian wheat.” She glanced toward the north end of the kitchen area at a small door. “And several flitches of bacon; there is cheese, cider, and butter in the dairy house.” She sighed, as if the further words had fatigued her completely.

“Good then,” Browne said. “This is all most curious. That
seat by the fire will comfort me while I think. You join your children now in sleep yourself. I'll be just here.”

She settled some coals into a bright warming pan, saying as if speaking to herself: “Jared and I laid a fire in the other room this night.” Then she turned and walked toward the open entryway to the only other room, or parlor, at ground level. At the threshold she turned again to Browne slowly, like one sleepwalking, and said: “I am very thankful, Mr. Browne; just now I need to sleep.”

He was about to speak, but she slowly turned away. Just before disappearing into the room, she loosened her headcloth, and a thick coil of dark blond hair escaped to the small of her back. In the firelight the hair was abundant and lustrous, seeming to him so vigorous as to exist separately from the exhausted woman herself.

He glimpsed the shifting light of flames against the entry wall from a fireplace in the second room. He thought he heard the murmurings and turnings of sleeping children also. There was a soft rumble of firewood from the other room. Then the house grew still enough to redouble the noise of the snowstorm.

Browne pulled the bedrug around himself now and settled into the rude chair. He looked about the room, noticing more of the implements and materials of her labors. Her spinning wheels had been moved from the small chamber above, he imagined, closer to the hall fireplace. Bits of flax and what might have been cotton wool lay about by the wheels. He now saw on the floor a child's poppet made of some kind of straw or rags lying below a rough little go-cart of the sort toddlers would use to scoot about under their working mother's eye. These children, he thought, would have much more work to do in the absence of their father.

The fire swooped with a gust of wind. He smiled and murmured ironically:

Let my Enchantments then be sung, or read.

When Laurell spirits 'ith fire, and when the Hearth

Smiles to it selfe, and guilds the roofe with mirth. . . .

At times a child stirred or groaned in its sleep. But otherwise the compact house grew as quiet and concealed as the brackish shifting river hidden under its new cover of ice and deepening snow.

II

Browne found the house of Balthazar Coffin upriver from the Higgins' house, well above the falls where the river turned fresh. It was an imposing house of two stories with an overhang in the front, a further half-story in the gable tops, and a long lean-to roof steeply sloping low into the first story in the rear. The central chimney was the largest in this settlement of houses with generous chimneys. The clapboards had turned an unusual light gray, as if made of unfamiliar wood, but the neatly riven roof shingles were burnished to a more familiar gray tinged with deep browns. Upon the front door lay a heavy iron knocker in the shape of a fantastical rampant boar.

Once inside, Richard Browne sat with Balthazar Coffin at a long library table constructed of a single plank of wood nearly three feet wide. The room was disordered by books lying about in trunks, in cases, and on the floor. The table top was cluttered with manuscripts and dried plant specimens. They had exchanged some desultory talk before sitting, and now a cup of warmed rum sat before each man. The late daylight that penetrated from without tinged the room with a solemn golden hue.

Coffin's beard was neatly trimmed after the Flemish style, and his eyes, though intelligent, were bleary. His dress was somber and plain, after the manner of grave doctors or ministers. And despite his leanness there was about him a certain solid
self-possession—a force of identity that perhaps a master would have captured in the man's portrait—which was to Browne the most extraordinary thing about him.

“You have spoken to many others about the matter, Mr. Browne?” Coffin asked.

“Only to Mr. Cole and Goody Higgins.”

“Has the woman gossiped every manner of tale?”

“She's much troubled.”

“Ah, she is troubled.”

“There is sleeplessness, some pain, and visions. Much trouble in head and heart.”

“Mopishness,” Coffin said. “Suffocation of the mother.” He flipped his hand in dismissal. “Any number of things.”

“I think not,” Browne said. “But we shall see. Her losses distress her, certainly.” Browne hesitated but there was no reply. “She's my first charge, so to speak. Mr. Cole asked that I look after her and the strange disappearance of her husband.”

“You are staying with the Coles?”

“Just this first week until I arrange lodging. I come here to Robinson's Falls by way of mutual acquaintances, at Mount Wollaston, between my father and Mr. Cole. I seek to regain a substantial portion of my own lost patrimony. I would, you see, make my way here anew, make this wilderness yield up its riches. So I've placed myself at the service of Mr. Cole. I mean to plant a property to be granted me in the spring. My father had long prepared me to manage his estate.”

“Your father is a peer?”

“He is now deceased. But was in the House of Commons, a man educated by the marketplace in the ‘Exchange of Christendom,' as they say.”

“Ah, you are frank, Mr. Browne.”

“I do not relish subtleties in such circumstances. I have learned, moreover, that it's best to be direct when you seek information.”

“Indeed. Well, Cole is a good ruler. The people respect him.
His concern is for all of us. Goody Higgins and her husband are another matter. There has been much talk of this, as you say, disappearance.”

“And so will I have to speak with many others to gather direction. Of course I have heard of these tragic events of last . . . June? My deepest sympathies, Sir.

“There is much hidden,” Browne went on. “And there may be a connection to Higgins' disappearance. I do not even know how people regard him now. Might he have been forced to flee by some? His culpability remains at issue, I take it.”

“Indeed!”

“There are records of proceedings, inquiries? I understand you withdrew your action against him. . . .”

“Mr. Browne, you are an educated man. It is ever a joy to meet such a one in this wilderness. My household welcomes you. My library, such as it is, is at your disposal. But this matter of my murdered wife I cannot dwell on with good humor. She was my wife but five years. As your training tells you, where certain evidence is lacking or in contradiction with other testimony, and accusation is countered by less supportable charges, and so on into voids of speculation, then withdrawal is the better part of justice and sense. And where the name of one's wife is at stake, and a deceased wife at that, one's duty is to withdraw. Who murdered my poor Kathrin in such a manner I know not. That Higgins was negligent at the least, at fault in our contract, and ultimately slanderous is plain. But my case against him did not proceed as it should—too little to incriminate him.

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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